Sarajevo Serbs vent rage with futile vote

Referendum will not alter peace plan, writes Emma Daly in Grbavica

The leadership will claim overwhelming victory, but everyone knows it is a lost cause. Thousands of Serbs living in Sarajevo districts due to revert to government control next year under the Dayton peace plan turned out yesterday to issue a resounding "No". The question was: "Are you in favour of Serbian Sarajevo becoming a part of the federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (Muslim-Croat entity) and coming under federation control?"

"I'm very sure every single person registered here will vote in this referendum and I'm convinced all will vote against the Dayton plan," said Milenko Rupar.

As president of the electoral commission for polling station No 1, a small room in the municipal building draped in Serbian flags and adorned with a rug bearing the Serbian double-headed eagle, he knows the electorate is well-versed in returning the right result. Referendums on peace plans have become an annual event in the Srpska Republic, and the correct answer is always "No".

Would the result force the world to change the Dayton plan? He avoided the question, but said Serbs should keep control of their part of the city because the Bosnian President "wants an ethnically clean Islamic state" - a rich assertion from an official of a party that specified, from the outset, its desire to kill or expel all non-Serbs.

"If I have to go, I will burn my house and I think every Serb will do the same," Mr Rupar said. Most of his constituents agreed. "I will burn my house. I have lived here for 18 years and everything I have is here," said Sinisa Srdic, an 18-year-old student. How did he vote? "For us to stay here", he said. Under government control? "No, not under Muslim authority but under Serb authority."

That option is not on offer. But the answer highlights the confusion amongst many in Grbavica, the only significant Serb area to suffer anything like the misery inflicted on the rest of Sarajevo. "It's a funny atmosphere here - we are really disappointed and confused," said one woman who, like many, did not want her name used.

"We know what will happen but we just can't believe it." She believes perhaps a third of the population will stay - those braver than herself, as she put it - while the rest will go.

So far there are few signs of people leaving, although the authorities are dismantling and removing military and industrial equipment. The young woman and her family plan to wait until the last minute, horrified as they are by the idea of moving to Pale, the mountain village "capital" of the Serb republic.

Asked where they will go, Serbs in Grbavica respond with blank looks, and vague hopes of a visa to another world. Few consider remaining under government control, infected as they are by Serb propaganda and unnerved by the Bosnian leadership's refusal to grant amnesties to soldiers, who include virtually every able-bodied man aged 18 to 60.

Away from the crowd the occasional dissenting voice breaks through. A Serb woman in her early thirties stood in the snow on the Serb side of the Bridge of Brotherhood and Unity, where razor wire, barricades and provocative signs ("Welcome to Srpska Republic") mark the front line. She was standing beside three elderly Muslim women, stranded on the Serb side, awaiting visits from relatives in Sarajevo proper.

They had all voted "Yes", they said - until a Serb policeman strolled up. The Serb woman waited until he had passed. "Don't tell anybody, but I think it would be better to live together," she said. "I want the city to be open."

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